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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 58 (1933-38) [36:26]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107 (1959) [27:17]

March (No. 10) from Music for Children, Op. 65 (arr. solo cello Gregor Piatigorsky) [1:35]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2013, Frankfurt Radio Hall; Alte Oper Frankfurt. DDD
HYPERION CDA68037 [65:20]

Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto had a troubled history. Cellist Steven Isserlis explains this well in his notes in the CD booklet. Gregor Piatigorsky requested Prokofiev compose a concerto for him, as the composer was living in the U.S. and Europe at the time. Prokofiev completed the first movement and part of the second when he decided to return to Soviet Russia. Piatigorsky had been thrilled with what he had heard of the concerto so far, but Prokofiev decided he could no longer dedicate the work or have the cellist perform its première because of the cellist’s status as a “refugee from the Soviet Union”. The composer finally completed the concerto in 1938 and a little-known cellist premièred it in St. Petersburg with a lack of success. Piatigorsky and Koussevitzky performed it in Boston in 1940; however, the concerto was not revived in Russia until 1947 when the young Mstislav Rostropovich played it with piano accompaniment in Moscow. Prokofiev attended the performance, but apparently was not satisfied with the work and decided to rewrite it. This became the Symphony-Concerto, Op. 125 of 1952, which thanks to Rostropovich was widely performed. It is this later version that is mostly played today, with the original concerto receiving only a rare outing. I had not heard the original concerto before and am glad that I now have had the opportunity with this account by Steven Isserlis.

Unlike the case of the Fourth Symphony, which this concerto resembles thematically in places, the work is of similar length to the remake. Prokofiev used many of the same themes, but changed the structure somewhat and added new material. I don’t think the revised version is any better than its predecessor and neither is at the level of the violin or piano concertos. All the same, the work has its attractions including a number of memorable passages. The first movement begins with a strutting, march-like theme before turning rather mysterious. The second movement is twice the length of the first and can seem a bit prolix for its material. It starts out as a fast and furious scherzo and then settles down to something more songful. Isserlis does drama well with his wiry, intense tone, but also softens his tone in the lyrical sections. The third movement, a theme and variations, is as long as the other two combined. The solo cello begins with a heroic theme and the following four variations have enough contrast to sustain interest. As Isserlis notes, they “constitute a four-movement structure of opening allegro, scherzo, slow movement and finale.” The concerto’s opening theme then recurs in the following “Reminiscenza” before the work closes with a dramatic Coda where the cello plays high harmonics and there is percussion including snare and bass drums. Isserlis and the orchestra under Järvi seem tailor-made to this music and do everything they can for the work. It’s not a piece that I will want to hear often. When I do, I will almost certainly turn to this recording in future.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, on the other hand, is one of the 20th century’s most performed works in the genre. As such Isserlis faces a great deal of competition, some of which contain more compatible disc-mates. Isserlis states that Shostakovich cited Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto as a major inspiration for this cello concerto. That may very well be true, but Shostakovich produced a structurally much tighter and better-organized work. This concerto became a hit almost immediately after its first performance in 1959 by Rostropovich and has remained a staple of the cello/orchestra repertoire ever since. For my money it is still Rostropovich who is nonpareil here, especially his account with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy (Sony). Although their tempos in the first movement are close, Isserlis and Järvi seem metrical and deliberate next to Rostropovich and Ormandy. Also, I much prefer Rostropovich’s bigger, richer tone next to which Isserlis’s can sound strident and wiry. The new account, though, is recorded well and one can hear woodwind detail that is not as obvious in other recordings. The horn solos are also well taken and the timpani strokes are really explosive in an acoustic that has much presence. The celesta in the second movement is clearly heard as part of the orchestral texture, whereas with Ormandy it sounds like it was separately miked. I like that, even if I doubt one would hear it that way in a concert performance. Overall, the Isserlis/ Järvi has enough going for it to recommend it, particularly if one is in the market for the Prokofiev Cello Concerto. Otherwise, I will stick with the Rostropovich/Ormandy, which has been coupled variously — the Sony CD I have contains Ormandy’s equally vital account of the Symphony No. 1. In addition, Heinrich Schiff with the composer’s son on Philips also contains Shostakovich’s equally great Cello Concerto No. 2 in wonderful performances, and Rafael Wallfisch in a two-disc set on Nimbus gives us sterling accounts of the cello concertos and the works for cello and piano.

Isserlis concludes the CD with a nice encore, Piatigorsky’s arrangement of one of Prokofiev’s piano pieces, the familiar March from the Music for Children. This disc, then, will be of primary interest for those seeking a fine recording of Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto with the Shostakovich as a bonus.

Leslie Wright
Previous review: Geoffrey Molyneux



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